Book Review from the August 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard
Peterloo: Witnesses to a Massacre, Polyp, Eva Schlunke and Robert Poole: New Internationalist £11.99.
On 16 August 1819, around 60,000 workers gathered in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester to demand an extension of the franchise. They came, men, women and children, from all over Manchester and surrounding areas. Many joined up in contingents of local people who then marched together several miles to the centre of the city. Part of a much wider reform movement, they had come to hear ‘Orator’ Henry Hunt give a speech, but primarily to support a wider franchise and to have an enjoyable day out with their friends and neighbours.
The ruling class, who resisted any reforms, had of course made preparations for the meeting. The local yeomanry, a private militia of the wealthy, were there, also the 15th Hussars. Under instructions from the magistrates, the police attempted to arrest Hunt, but when they were unsuccessful, the mounted yeomanry were sent to help. Not properly trained, in many cases drunk, and with freshly-sharpened sabres, they rode into the crowd, attacking people at will. The Hussars then arrived, in some cases restraining the yeomanry but in others adding to the confusion and crushing. At least fifteen people were killed, perhaps eighteen, and over seven hundred injured. The authorities arrested many of the organisers, including Hunt, who was sentenced to sixteen months in prison.
This book, with illustrations by Polyp, was edited by Schlunke on the basis of evidence and information assembled by Poole. There are some narrative captions by the authors, but the majority of the text is taken verbatim from reports by direct witnesses, whether reformers, journalists or establishment figures. This lends the story a vividness that is added to by the graphics; not everyone likes graphic novels or histories, but here the format does provide an impression of a continuing series of events that brings home to the reader the violence and desperation of the day. A major of the Hussars is quoted as saying, ‘I was very much amused to see the way in which the volunteer cavalry knocked the people about’, while a reporter stated, ‘There were individuals in the yeomanry whose political rancour approached absolute insanity.’ Shortly before he died as a result of being beaten, one ex-soldier said, ‘At Waterloo there was man to man, but at Manchester it was downright murder.’
The authorities reacted not just by prison sentences but also by terming the events a ‘riot’ and blaming the crowd for what happened, as they had supposedly attacked the yeomanry. Yet journalists such as John Tyas of The Times, who was no supporter of reform, agreed that no stones or whatever were thrown at the yeomanry, so there was no justification or provocation for their violence. The Six Acts passed later in 1819 were intended to clamp down on further mass protest. The propaganda war continues today, such as in arguments that not enough people were killed for it to really constitute a massacre. An appalling article by Dominic Sandbrook (Mail Online 24 August 2018) played down Peterloo’s significance and claimed that, compared to the violence of the French Revolution, it ‘was not even a sideshow’. Moreover, it was ‘almost certainly an accident’. But, while it is arguable to what extent there was an advance government plan to attack the demonstrators, the events of 16 August have to be seen in the context of both previous and subsequent state repression aimed at keeping workers in their place.
The bicentenary of Peterloo is being marked by a number of events and exhibitions in Manchester (see peterloo1819.co.uk). This book provides an excellent account of what happened and why it remains important.